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EVAWI > Resources > Best Practices > FAQs > Memory and Recall
Q Can the brain eventually piece together fragments of memory to create an accurate and holistic memory of a traumatic event, once neurochemistry returns to a more normal state?
Q When you use the analogy of a person recording memories on Post-It Notes, is that referencing how a brain of someone experiencing trauma takes ‘snapshots’ of what is happening?
Q Older victims often forget the details of a sexual assault committed against them when they were children. Can you explain why victims can often say that something happened to them but forget the details of the incident?
A Can the brain eventually piece together fragments of memory to create an accurate and holistic memory of a traumatic event, once neurochemistry returns to a more normal state?

People are often able to piece together memory fragments over time, to create a coherent narrative account of a traumatic event. However, some memories may never consolidate very well and there are likely to be some gaps in any memory that will always remain missing. This may be especially true for traumatic memories, but the same can be said for everyday memories as well. The reality is that our memories do not operate like a videorecording. We store some aspects of any event in our memory but not others, and then as we consolidate and recall over time we have a tendency to incorporate new elements. This can happen either because we fill in gaps with missing information using our best reasonable speculation regarding what might have happened – or we get the event confused with another one. Once this happens, however, our brain cannot tell the difference between the original memory and the new elements that were introduced after the fact. This is why law enforcement officers will often interview several people who witnessed the same event and get several different versions. Memories can be generally accurate, but there will always be some gaps and errors based on individual personalities, experiences, and interpretations of an event.

A When you use the analogy of a person recording memories on Post-It Notes, is that referencing how a brain of someone experiencing trauma takes ‘snapshots’ of what is happening?

The analogy of the Post-It Notes is indeed supposed to illustrate the concept that the brain of a person experiencing trauma is taking ‘snapshots’ of what is going on. This is not totally unlike the process involved in recording everyday memories – we do not capture everything we experience in memory, because that would be impossible. Instead we capture elements of an event or experience and record them as units. When we experience everyday events, however, our brains are better able to consolidate these units into a holistic memory. To extend the analogy, everyday events are also recorded on Post-It Notes, but they are generally well organized and coherent.

Trauma interferes with this consolidation process, so this is why the analogy describes the Post-It Notes with memories recorded from a traumatic event being scattered and disorganized, including some that are stored in the ‘wrong’ place or missing entirely. For people who have experienced a traumatic event such as a sexual assault, it is especially challenging to piece together a coherent memory – so victims need to be interviewed in a way that facilitates this difficult process, rather than interfering with it.

For more details on how to conduct a successful interview with a victim of sexual assault, please see the OLTI module entitled, Interviewing the Victim: Techniques Based on the Realistic Dynamics of Sexual Assault. A variety of webinars and training bulletins are also archived on our website.

A Older victims often forget the details of a sexual assault committed against them when they were children. Can you explain why victims can often say that something happened to them but forget the details of the incident?

The answer to this question is not really different from the other more general process described for the neurobiology of trauma and its impact on memory and recall. The Post-It Note analogy works in this context, in terms of explaining how some elements of a memory may be recorded in a way that can be recalled whereas others cannot. Even beyond that analogy, however, the research indicates that the traumatic nature of the experience tends to focus a person’s memories on central rather than peripheral details (for a review, see Koss, Tromp & Tharan, 1995).

Rape memories, compared to other unpleasant memories, were less clear and vivid, less visually detailed, less likely to occur in a meaningful order, less well-remembered, less talked about, and less frequently recalled either voluntarily or involuntarily; with less sensory components including sound, smell, touch, and taste; and containing slightly less reexperiencing of the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts than were present in the original incident” (Koss, Figueredo, Bell, Tharan & Tromp, 1996, p. 428).

Such factors go a long way toward explaining why adults may know they were sexually assaulted or abused as a child but not recall many details of the incident(s).

Koss, M.P., Figueredo, A.J., Bell, I., Tharan, M., & Tromp, S. (1996). Traumatic memory characteristics: A cross-validated mediational model of response to rape among employed women. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105 (3), 421-432.

Koss, M.P., Tromp, S., & Tharan, M. (1995). Traumatic memories: Empirical foundations, forensic and clinical implications. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2 (2), 111-132.

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